If my choice for my very first Christie book (Death on the Nile) was predictable, my follow up read is probably equally so. I’m starting out with a bang after all, dabbling in some of the better regarded titles in Christie’s library, and checking off some of the books identified in the Five Agatha Christie Books to Read Before They’re Spoiled For You list assembled by Brad over at Ah Sweet Mystery. Crooked House straddles the categories neatly, and deservedly so.
My experience with Crooked House is incredibly similar to my experience with Death on the Nile. Although we’re dealing with entirely different stories taking place in completely different settings, both books swept me right in and maintained my interest throughout, despite the lack of any “impossible” hook that I typically seek out. And, in both cases, I pretty much saw the solution the entire time, and yet somehow managed to remain enchanted.
I’ve got to shake my head at my luck with solving Christie’s mysteries so far. I don’t want to figure them out! I want to be tugged along by false clues only to have my world turned inside out by a cleanly revealed misdirection that causes my mind to instantly reconsider the past 200 pages that I’ve read. Oh, and Crooked House would have been a whopper! Talk about a killer twist – too bad I didn’t get to experience it in full.
At a high level, a plot summary of Crooked House doesn’t sound exceptionally appealing to me. The poisoning of an aged tycoon – most likely by one of the many quirky family members that inhabit his sprawling estate. Who done it? Who cares? It seems as if 100 books may have been written along this very same plot line, and I’m sure that’s a low estimate.
Yet with Crooked House, Christie somehow immediately caught my interest. I’m new enough to the author that I can’t quite describe how, but everything just works. The mystery is engaging, the story comfortable, the characters intriguing. Throw any of these dimensions off, and perhaps we’d have a mediocre read. But they’re not off – they’re perfectly executed.
We encounter the murder early on – a poisoning by eye medicine swapped in place of an insulin shot. Anyone in the house had access to the medicine and enough spare insulin vials were on hand that the deed could have been carried out weeks in advance. Suffice to say, we definitely aren’t in impossible crime territory.
The story unfolds through the eyes of Charles Hayward, who plays the role of the somewhat standard “fly on the wall” narrator. Rather than being given the opportunity to randomly tag along on the police investigation, as is common enough in GAD, Hayward has a respectable excuse to be involved. His fiancé is the granddaughter of the victim, which provides him a purpose to be at the mansion and talk with the many family members. His father is a commissioner at Scotland Yard, which gives him a justification for attempting to dig into the case.
And dig he does. Although the plot from this point forward could be somewhat summarized as a series of interviews with the possible suspects, the interactions between Hayward and the rest of the cast is organic enough that I barely noticed that I was walking the standard path of a Golden Age mystery. We have a few obvious suspects, which are tempting to dismiss, and then a varied cast of family members who all have motives bubbling beneath the surface.
Of course, as mentioned above, I immediately latched onto the actual culprit. I’ll walk a narrow wire to avoid spoilers, so if you haven’t read Crooked House, perhaps now is the time to bail (and if you have read it, please be discreet in any comments that you post).
I’d naturally like to think that I’m super clever for seeing through the mystery, but I suspect it’s more that I’ve seen this before. At the time that Crooked House was published, I’m willing to bet that the twist caused many a reader to gasp in shock. Since then, it’s been repeated time and again, especially in low budget horror movies. I don’t know enough to say that anyone was copying Christie, but I can imagine that Crooked House is well regarded enough to have provided inspiration.
I have to think that the twist plays off the fact that a reader wouldn’t consider a certain… possibility. I say this because having myself actually considered the possibility, the entire deception played out in full view for the rest of the book. The revelations that come spinning at Hayward in the final pages weren’t revelations at all – they were beacons that pointed at the culprit as the earlier chapters unfolded.
Well, that’s my theory at least, and I can only base it off my experience. I’m no master sleuth after all. I could write a five-part blog post listing every time I’ve had the wool pulled over my eyes, but it would pretty much be a list of each mystery I’ve read up to now. And I like it that way – to be fooled. We don’t look forward to the end of a GAD book to be proven right in our theories. We look forward to it in anticipation of being proved wrong in a way that we never saw coming.
Well, I’m 2-0 so far solving Christie, but I don’t mind; I’m 2-0 for enjoying her. I don’t say that in a “this is an established classic that I must appreciate” sort of way. I’m saying it because both Death on the Nile and Crooked House were flat out fun reads.